Infants born with neural tube defects that are not immediately fatal may have other conditions that need treatment. Such conditions vary from one infant to another, and some conditions develop or must be addressed over time or later in life.
The most severe issues tend to develop in those who have myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, in which the spinal cord is exposed.1
Many infants born with spina bifida get extra fluid in and around the brain, a condition called hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. The extra fluid can cause swelling of the head, which may lead to brain injury.
Chiari II Malformation
The brains of most children with myelomeningocele are positioned abnormally. The lower part of the brain rests farther down than normal, partially in the upper spinal canal. The cerebrospinal fluid can get blocked and cause hydrocephalus. Although most affected children have no other symptoms, a few may have upper-body weakness and trouble breathing and swallowing.
Tethered Spinal Cord
Typically, the bottom of the spinal cord floats freely in the spinal canal, but for many people with spina bifida, the spinal cord is actually attached to the spinal canal. Thus, in these cases the spinal cord stretches as a person grows, and this stretching can cause spinal nerve damage. The person might have back pain, scoliosis (crooked spine), weakness in the legs and feet, bladder or bowel control problems, and other conditions.
Paralysis and Limitations in Mobility
People with spina bifida high on the back (near the head, for instance) might not be able to move their legs, torso, or arms. People with spina bifida low on the back (near the hips, for example) might have some leg mobility and be able to walk unassisted or with crutches, braces, or walkers.
Lack of Bladder and Bowel Control
People with spina bifida often cannot control their bladder or their bowel movements. They also can develop urinary tract infections.
Many people with spina bifida—possibly three-quarters of those with the condition—are allergic to latex, or natural rubber. Although researchers still do not entirely understand why this rate is so high, some experts believe such an allergy can be caused by frequent exposure to latex, which is common for people with spina bifida who have shunts and have had many surgeries.2
Some studies have shown that up to 50% of children with myelomeningocele have a pattern of characteristics and deficits consistent with nonverbal learning disabilities syndrome.3 This syndrome shares some of its characteristic features with Asperger syndrome.
Some people with myelomeningocele have additional physical or psychological conditions, including digestive, vision, sexual, social, and emotional problems; obesity; and depression.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Spina bifida: Health issues & treatments. Retrieved March 20, 2012, from http://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/spinabifida/treatment.html
- Spina Bifida Association. (2008). Latex (natural rubber) allergy in spina bifida. Retrieved March 30, 2012, from http://spinabifidaassociation.org/latex/
- Yeates, K. O., Loss, N., Colvin, A. N., & Enrile B. G. (2003). Do children with myelomeningocele and hydrocephalus display nonverbal learning disabilities? An empirical approach to classification. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 9, 653–662.